Celebrating International Day for Women and Girls in Science

February 11 is International Day for Women and Girls in Science, an opportunity to highlight the important role women play in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). To celebrate, we sat down with medical student and Orbis Future Vision Leaders member, Anne Xuan-Lan Nguyen (pictured centre).

For Orbis Future Vision Leaders member, Anne Xuan-Lan Nguyen, the day has particular significance. Anne, who is a third-year medical student at McGill University in Montreal, and the Founder and Executive Director of the Canadian Ophthalmology Student Interest Group (COSIG), sees this day as a much-needed reminder to women and girls that they belong in these traditionally male-dominated fields.

It was through a leadership program for high school girls that Nguyen was encouraged to consider a career in a STEMM field, and she feels like mentorship is essential for others who are looking into the area—that’s a big reason she herself has taken on so many leadership roles during her education and training. She wants everyone to feel included and supported in STEMM.

Anne Xuan-Lan Nguyen

STEMM is a bloom­ing field, encom­pass­ing a broad range of aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­plines. More women and diver­si­ty are need­ed in STEMM. There’s real­ly no stereo­type of the ide­al per­son or per­son­al­i­ty, there’s a place for everyone.”

Anne during the Sovereign Medal for Volunteers ceremony

Anne was drawn to medicine as a way to help others and make a difference in her community. This aspiration stems from her early volunteer experiences, which made her mindful of the barriers faced by marginalized communities. During medical school, she continues to advocate for issues she takes heart to. In parallel to community advocacy, Anne’s passion for science and research led her to look into questions ranging from the gender gap in medicine to potential therapies.

Anne became interested in ophthalmology when she had the opportunity to shadow an ophthalmologist during her time at the Stanford Byers Eye Institute. “The direct impact that I saw on patients’ lives was life-changing,” she says, explaining how at one point a homeless patient came in who could no longer see, to the point that they had difficulty getting to the appointment. After a short cataract surgery, the patient was able to see clearly again. The impact on this person’s life was so immense that Anne knew this was the specialty she wanted to pursue.

“That moment really affected me and that’s when I knew I was interested in discovering more about the specialty,” she says. “Every time I have the chance to assist ophthalmology procedures, that feeling remains.”

Now, as Anne moves towards finishing medical school, she is hoping to inspire the next generation of girls and young women interested in STEMM. For the past four years, she has been delivering presentations about health professions to high school students from underrepresented groups in medicine, and leading introductory suturing workshops for them. Her passion for vision research and medical education also led her to launch ophthalmology-related programming.

“During COVID, I realized we didn’t necessarily have a support network or opportunities, especially for students who are not as well connected. That’s why I decided to reach out to all Canadian ophthalmology local interest groups and create COSIG. Since then, we’ve been able to work together to create a safe space and offer free student courses, networking events and a mentorship program,” she says.

Anne interviews Dr. Carol Shields, Chief of the Ocular Oncology Department at Wills Eye Hospital, on 'The Lens Pod'.

COSIG has partnered with the Orbis Future Vison Leaders to support education and networking opportunities for those interested in global eye health—an area Anne hopes to pursue. They are also currently raising funds to help Orbis provide cataract surgeries and eye care for Rohingya refugees.

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